Robots Rule This Futuristic Barley Field

By Leah Froats | October 3, 2017 2:54 pm
An automated combine harvests crops. (Credit: Hands-Free Hectare)

An automated combine harvests crops. (Credit: Hands-Free Hectare)

Is there anything more quintessentially American than a farmer in the heartland, toiling away on their land? But this vision of agrarian life will fade into the dusty shelves of sentimental nostalgia, because agriculture is poised to become an industry ruled by robot laborers. Companies like Hands Free Hectare (HFHa) are leading the way.

After a year of work, the HFHa project successfully harvested a crop of spring barley, grown using only autonomous machine labor. Members of the Harper Adams University engineering staff and precision agriculture company Precision Decisions partnered on the HFHa project. Though many farmers are already using satellite-guided equipment to assist in the harvest, the initiative aimed to be the first in the world to farm a crop with a single person developing callouses.

No Hands … Or Feet

The team modified an Iseki tractor and a Sampo combine to include a custom automation system. All of the systems working the field sent feedback to a central mission control system, allowing for real-time human monitoring. While the machines themselves operated independently, many important decisions were still in the hands of humans. The HFHa team regularly met and consulted with an agronomist to help make important decisions, altering the robots’ plans accordingly.

Total in-field autonomy wasn’t the only goal. Another major tenet of the project was precision agriculture, or the using tools to collect observations and measurements to determine how to maintain crops within a field. Precision agriculture allows for specific, tailored treatment plans for a variety of needs based on a wealth of data.

For example, drones with automated flight patterns can capture aerial snapshots of a field. Those images are then analyzed to determine which areas might require additional fertilizers, nitrogen or watering. The HFHa team used a drone to capture multispectral images for such an analysis, along with what it calls a “robotic scout” to collect plant and soil samples from different parts of the field for in-lab testing and examination.

Precision agriculture, combined with the efficiency of automation, presents a compelling answer to the question of feeding a growing population. But the technology isn’t there yet—the entirety of the HFHa project cost £200,000 (about $265,000) for a yield of 4.5 tons. That’s about $265 per bushel for its barley, which typically costs roughly $4 to $5.

Despite the less-than-optimal returns, the best thing to do after a successful harvest is kick back with a beer and appreciate your bounty. Appropriately, HFHa’s team hopes to use the autonomously farmed barley to make their own brew, perfect for a celebratory drink.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, top posts
MORE ABOUT: computers, robots
  • TLongmire

    I’ve thought about this a lot and honestly one sound sustainable path forward is individual men to commit to permaculture. A.I. will perfect everything so one way men can be relavant in the future is to devote themselves to perfect nature for the experience in and for itself.

    • MMA_Miami Rocks

      I don’t see why man cannot use machines to do hard labor and remain relevant.

      • TLongmire

        It comes down to purpose. Once machines perfect farming there will be no reason for farmers as such. Hard work with the goal of bettering the environment will become more relevant once Mars is accessible to us.

        • MMA_Miami Rocks

          Once machines “perfect farming,” farmers will “happily” move on to other things. They aren’t doing it for the fun of it.

          • TLongmire

            Hence my original post. Permaculture is a viable lifestyle in the future regardless of need to produce food and will make up a notable percentage of the colonizers of Mars.

  • Uncle Al

    Is there anything more quintessentially American than a farmer in the heartland, toiling away on their land?” The Clinton Foundation laundering money. The Pentagon subsuming Afghan opiate trade. Inner Cities, zero sum education, “rights,” Snowflakes, Queer Nation: OSHA, EPA, HHS, the Federal Reserve. Yes We Can.

  • Tom Schultz

    It appears to me their prices are a bit off $4-5 is what the farmer can sell the barley for on open market not what it costs to produce it, which is what the $265,000 is being compared to.


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